Rabbi’s World War I book invites new look at German history

Rabbi’s World War I book invites new look at German history

Fine evaluates anti-Semitism and its link to the nation's DNA

Jewish soldiers were well integrated into the German army during World War I, says Rabbi David Fine in a new book published by Germany’s De Gruyter press. Indeed, argues Fine, rabbi of Temple Israel in Ridgewood, anti-Semitism in the German army at that time was no worse than in other military forces.

“There was anti-Semitism, but we must compare it to other armies,” he said, noting that both of his grandfathers served in the United States Army during World War II, while his wife’s grandfather served in the Soviet army.

“They also experienced anti-Semitism,” he said, but – like German Jewish soldiers during World War I – “it wasn’t the first thing on their minds” when asked to describe their military experience.

“Jewish soldiers did experience anti-Semitism in the German army in World War I. But that experience was no more determinative or fatalist than the anti-Semitism that Jews experienced in the other forces of the war,” he writes. “Anti-Semitism was present, but it need not be read as ‘handwriting on the wall.’ The continuities of German history do not necessarily lead directly to Auschwitz.”

Indeed, he adds, “Rather than a story leading to the Holocaust, the story of Jewish soldiers is one that could have led to something very different, perhaps even the Berlin Republic of today.”

This is important to know, said the rabbi, for if we regard the Holocaust as a specifically German phenomenon, we will not learn any important lessons.

His book is also important because “nobody knows the stories of these patriotic young men who fought for their country,” he said. For some, fighting against Czarist Russia – a clear oppressor of Jews – “was also a religious moral war.”

Fine pointed out that De Gruyter, “an academic publishing house with a long pedigree” – it is an early 20th-century merger of several companies, the oldest of which was founded in the mid-eighteenth century – is investing significant resources in Jewish studies. This book, Jewish Integration in the German Army in the First World War, is the second in a series on modern Jewish history. The first, by Irene Eber, explored the position of Jewish refugees in wartime Shanghai.

Joking that he seems to have become De Gruyter’s go-to guy “for all things relating to Conservative Judaism,” the rabbi noted that De Gruyter’s “most important project is an encyclopedia of the Bible – a history of its interpretation and reception.”

The Ridgewood religious leader already has provided an entry on Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, who was a Talmud scholar, expert in Jewish law, and chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is now working on one about Louis Ginzberg, a talmudist, author of Legends of the Jews, and a leading figure in 20th-century Conservative Judaism.

In exploring the experience of Jews in the German army during the World War I, Fine said he was breaking new ground, since little of the existing scholarship addresses that issue. Rather, the prevailing view has been that anti-Semitism began in World War I and continued to grow, ultimately leading to the Nazi reign.

“I was convinced that there was another story, a differ
ent story,” he said. “That was my attitude going into it.”

While the topic always held some interest for him, he became particularly excited when, by chance, he found a memorial volume in a used book store that listed the names of some 12,000 fallen Jewish soldiers from the German army during World War I, recording dates of birth, rank, division, and towns of origin. Next to this was another volume, also published by Jewish War Veterans of Germany, with letters from the front.

Years later, when he knew that this would be the topic for his doctoral thesis, Fine visited the Jewish Museum in Berlin, which had launched a special exhibit about Jews during World War I. Happily, he said, he saw that the volume on display was precisely the book he had found.

The Ridgewood rabbi realizes that he is “going against the grain” in terms of dealing with the legacy of the Shoah.

“There’s a sense that the Holocaust is sui generis,” he said, but “my training as a historian is to compare and put [things] into context – to see how they fit into the story.” On one hand, he said, the Shoah is “the devil come down to earth. But it’s also a chapter in human history and needs to be understood in that context for us to learn a lesson about how it happened.”

“To say that it was specifically in the German DNA” doesn’t teach us anything, he said. The goal is not to hate Germans “but to understand the elements that led to such a horror. We need to be able to generalize, to learn lessons from it.”

In the course of his research, Fine read letters, memoirs, and diaries written by soldiers, along with anything else he could find that was relevant. In addition to anecdotes, he looked for data, such as rates of promotion. For example, he tried to find out how many Jews were promoted from enlisted man to non-commissioned officer, and how quickly this occurred.

He gathered some of his data from the Jewish War Cemetery in Berlin, which Fine described as “the largest Jewish military cemetery outside of Israel,” containing some 350 graves.

“I looked at each stone and tallied the ratio between the number of officers and enlisted men,” he said. Using the resultant data as a random sample, he referred to memorial volumes housed in Munich for the Bavarian army, creating similar ratios.

Fine found that in every area, for every ratio, “Jewish data were better than average. There were more officers, with Jews getting promoted faster. They were well integrated.”

Fine told of reading a coroner’s report about a Jewish soldier who committed suicide during the war. The rabbi later came upon a letter from that soldier’s commanding officer, informing the young man’s family that he had been “seriously wounded in battle and succumbed to wounds on the field of honor. He lied to the parents to maintain their son’s dignity,” he said. “It’s almost a religious privilege to dig up these papers and tell these stories.”

Jewish culture continued to thrive during the post-war Weimar Republic, he said. Not only could a Jew rise to cabinet level in Germany, but the period was one of “creative Jewish culture”; contributors included Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig.

“There’s a debate among historians on whether the Nazi rise to power was destined to happen or could have gone a different way,” Fine said. “Some think that Germany was a terrible place, that the Jews shouldn’t have lived there. But it was a wonderful place. They loved it. That’s what makes it much more tragic.”

Fine noted the “huge controversy” in the mid-1990s over Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which “read eliminationist anti-Semitism back into the 1880s as a direct line to the Holocaust. It was very controversial among historians, but the public loved it.”

He said his own book is not about the Holocaust. Rather, he said, he’s trying “to write a corrective to the way we understand Germany in Jewish history. It’s not black and white. A more sophisticated understanding will help us develop an appreciation for the other Germany – the one that’s there now.”

Germany has “the fastest growing Jewish community in the world,” he said. “If you have Jewish parentage, you can live there. It’s a kind of reparations.”

Today, he said, the German government is committed to the support of the Jewish community, noting that “They want to build bridges to the Jewish people and restore the community that was there.” He pointed out as well that increasing numbers of Germans are coming to view German-Jewish heritage “as part of their own heritage that their grandparents cut off.

“It’s not just a Jewish story. Jews are part of the German story,” he said. “We’re becoming part of that story again.”

Rabbi Fine will speak about his book at the Ridgewood Public Library on June 18 at 7 p.m. For information, call (201) 670-5600, ext. 125.

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